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Updated Nov 8, 2023, 2:15pm EST
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The fuzzy geopolitics of the giant pandas’ return to China

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REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
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The D.C. National Zoo’s beloved pandas – Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and Xiao Qi Ji – departed for China Wednesday, marking the end of a 23-year-era for the city and amplifying fraught Sino-American relations.

The three pandas were escorted from the zoo via a presidential-like motorcade to Dulles Airport, where a FedEx “Panda Express” jet will then transport them home in 19 hours, while the three passengers enjoy bamboo and fruit snacks. Two Smithsonian zookeepers and a veterinarian will accompany the bears across the Pacific.

With the Smithsonian’s pandas now en route home, the Atlanta Zoo is the only U.S. institution to house giant pandas, and the fate of those bears is up in the air. Chinese law stipulates that all pandas – even those born outside the country – are property of the Chinese government, meaning those at zoos are dependent on a lease. The setup became widely known as “panda diplomacy,” whereby China can start, renew, or cancel panda leases depending on how well the host country is getting along with Beijing.

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The end of panda diplomacy in the U.S. is a reflection of China’s waning interest in exerting its soft power in Washington through “winning over panda-obsessed hearts,” two foreign policy experts write for the Council on Foreign Relations. Amid rising tensions with the U.S., China is shifting to more aggressive forms of diplomacy with the belief that Washington will “seek to obstruct its rise and global influence” no matter what Beijing does. China’s leaders are asking: “why share China’s highly desired cultural capital without a diplomatic return?” the experts argue. Even if tensions thaw in the future, it will be challenging for China to come up with soft power substitutes in the U.S. “to rival their panda diplomats.”

It is not, in fact, the end of panda diplomacy, and attributing the pandas’ return to geopolitical factors is “pure sensationalism” by the U.S. media to drive the narrative that “China is becoming more closed,” argues an op-ed by Chinese state tabloid Global Times. The pandas are being returned to their habitat because they’re in their 20s and are facing age-related health issues, the tabloid writes. The U.S. is using the failure to renew the pandas’ leases to “tarnish China’s ‘diplomatic style’” the Global Times opines. The op-ed draws a comparison between DC residents who gave a “heartwarming” farewell to the pandas and the American media who “seem determined to tarnish the symbol of warmth, friendship, and cuteness represented by the giant panda.”

Exhibiting pandas outside China is essential for the preservation of the species, one Smithsonian giant panda keeper told Washington.org, a city-based tourism and culture site. “There are so few in the wild that we’re trying to boost the overall numbers in captivity,” the keeper said, adding that the exhibitions help support Chinese programs at breeding centers and reserves. The exhibits also help facilitate scientific exchanges with their Chinese counterparts, meaning there is “a lot of communication and learning on both sides,” she said. But other scholars argue that displaying pandas at zoos does not enhance the conservation philosophy. “There’s no unambiguous evidence that zoos are making visitors care more about conservation or take any action to support it,” argues environmental writer Emma Marris.

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